Friday, December 9, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Kayla Kearney comes out to her high school assembly

Many high school students get through four years without ever asking so much as a question in assembly, that all-school gathering that can be the most daunting audience for the budding speaker. But 17-year-old Kayla Kearney, a student at California's Maria Carillo High School, reached far beyond the hall in which she spoke earlier this year when she used her assembly appearance to come out to her peers and identify herself as a lesbian.

This particular assembly was planned as part of observances of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, according to local coverage, and the theme had its roots in a King speech about "time to break the silence:"
Carrillo students for years have prepared a special assembly honoring King's birthday, built around the theme of an annual countywide oratorical contest to be held at 5 p.m. Sunday at Santa Rosa High. This year's theme is “Time to break silence...about things that matter,” based on a 1967 speech in which King embraced a clerical movement to speak against the Vietnam War. The 75-minute Carrillo assembly was presented to students six times Thursday and Friday and was scheduled for a public airing Friday night for parents.
Kearney spoke for just over eight minutes, captured on video that's now been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, and covered and commented on by thousands. Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:

  • Be bold: Instead of being hesitant or too respectful as a speaker, Kearney goes for a bold disclosure and topic, albeit one in keeping with the assembly's theme. Talk about public speaking courage, knowing that her admission might lose her friends as well as listeners. And here, bold doesn't mean angry or flamboyant or out of place with the nature of the assembly. You can speak with courage and meaning without fireworks.
  • Be personal: I know plenty of speakers more senior and experienced who couldn't do eight minutes on any topic without notes or slides-as-cue-cards. But because she's telling an intensely personal story, one she's thought about over and over, Kearney needs no notes. Speaking personally doesn't work in every situation, but here, it allows her to be extemporaneous and in control.
  • Difficult stories make the most compelling content:  Part of finding your voice as a speaker involves telling difficult-for-you stories. That's emotionally tough for the speaker, but yields great results in dramatic impact and in audience reaction--and makes your speech memorable.

Here's Kearney's speech in full:

And here's a recording of the Martin Luther King, Jr. speech that inspired the day of oratory and gave Kearney the opening to break her own silence:

What do you think of this famous speech?

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